Trail Magic on the AT
Do you believe in magic? Ask any Northbound thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and they’d surely say yes. They might even start salivating, anticipating a treat like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
Ask any Southbound hiker, though, and they might be quick to dismiss its legitimacy (they don’t consider themselves as lucky). But regardless of which direction thru-hikers wander, one thing is for certain – on the AT, magic is real. It always has been. And on the trail, it’s undeniably the sweetest form of sorcery there is.
A group of us at Darn Tough had the opportunity to participate in Trail Magic this July, and this is our story. But first, let’s pull back the curtain a bit to uncover what secrets aid in the pull of Trail Magic’s supernatural attraction.
What Is Trail Magic?
Trail Magic is as enchanting as it sounds. It’s less ridiculous than what you might see from David Blaine on the streets of Las Vegas, but far more authentic.
For thru-hikers, Trail Magic is a conjuring of kindness and compassion, a prophecy that entails "finding what you need most when you least expect it." The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) describes Trail Magic as "experiencing something rare, extraordinary, or inspiring in nature."
Trail Magic isn’t something you set out to find – it finds you. It usually manifests in some form of random act of kindness that benefits hikers on the trail (and the people giving it, too). In these instances, Trail Magic could be stumbling across an unexpected vista, finding a piece of gear in a hiker box, or a cold beer in a cooler near a road crossing. But on this day, we were gearing up for something savory – and much more satisfying.
The Roads Less Travelled
Our journey that morning began in Waterbury, VT. After two hours in the car, we ditched the pavement near Killington and started climbing a Class 4 road, monitoring GPS pings up the double-wide path until loose gravel turned to craggy pitches of rutted dirt.
After a few miles of auto-crawling, we were excited to see our first white blaze on a tree near a small break in the roadway. This is where we met Jeff and Nancy.
It was around 8 AM when we arrived, and the Vermont couple were already set up for the day – they had camp chairs, a makeshift table on sawhorses, two jugs of water, and a propane grill set up on the tailgate of their Toyota Tacoma.
The air was stifling hot with sweet smells of coffee beans and freshly seared maple sausages – Jeff manning the drinks while Nancy tended the grill. For anyone passing through this area on foot, the aroma was enough to stimulate you, whether you cared for caffeine or not.
But what really made the atmosphere at camp so enriching was the combined spirit of Jeff and Nancy’s goodwill. It’s something they’ve cultivated over years of providing Trail Magic, and we were the ones lucky enough to get to go backstage and learn some of their best-kept secrets.
The Magicians Behind the Magic
Jeff and Nancy Comstock have never hiked the Appalachian Trail, yet their legacy is rooted within the framework of what makes hiking it so special. They’re what’s known as "Trail Angels" – or stewards of the trail, whose mission it is to help people, particularly thru-hikers, by providing resources and protecting the landscape they inhabit.
Residents of Burlington, VT, Jeff and Nancy find time each year to escape the lakeside and venture south towards Killington to host their annual Trail Magic event. For years, they’ve camped near the AT to provide Trail Magic for thru-hikers coming from Rutland (Nobo) and New Hampshire (Sobo).
This is where our team set up shop – nestled within the whispering woods of eastern Vermont’s dense wilderness, surrounded by luscious greenery and a bustling trail-side creek.
We brought a few extra chairs, a small camp table, and two bags filled with Darn Tough socks for the thru-hikers we planned on meeting. Jeff and Nancy camped in this exact spot the night before and anticipated a busy day as word on the trail spread that something magical nearby was brewing.
The six of us sat and conversed while waiting for the first hiker to arrive, swapping stories about life in Vermont and outlining our intentions for the day. The plan was to help Jeff and Nancy host their annual hiker feed.
The Cure to End Hiker Hunger
"Hiker feeds" are one of the most popular forms of Trail Magic. Thru-hikers are notorious for being hungry – I mean, wouldn’t you be if you walked 20 miles a day, every day, for five months?
Their voracious appetite for fatty foods and soda pop is something we all wish we could indulge in daily. But let’s be real – only a thru-hiker could scarf down two cheeseburgers, a family size bag of chips, three Pepsis, two ears of corn, one pound of pasta salad, and still have room for dessert. Just ask Appleseed (pictured here with Nancy).
Appleseed met us around mid-morning with a hankering for food (and a friend). Luckily, we were able to provide both. A retiree from Florida, Appleseed was thankful for his health as he continued his thru-hike through eastern VT. Watching Nancy flip burgers on the grill, he couldn’t help but relive his experience as a McDonald’s fry cook.
Appleseed ate so much food that he nearly fell asleep sitting down, but eventually mustered up the strength to push forward after a parting cola and charred piece of corn.
Consistently hiking so many miles over rugged terrain is incredibly taxing on the body – watching Appleseed gorge himself on food really put that into perspective. Such a caloric deficit can wreak havoc on a hiker’s physical state, and their psyche.
But when morale is low and hiker-hunger is at an all-time high, the trail always finds a way to provide. Hiker feeds are one of the best representations of that. And for Jeff and Nancy, it’s just one of the many ways they strive to give back to the trail community.
The Work of Angels
In addition to feeding hungry hikers, Jeff and Nancy are also adoptive owners of the Stony Brook Shelter, which sits atop a hill just five miles south of where we joined them. They were able to apply and adopt ownership of this shelter through the Green Mountain Club. Once or twice a year, they travel out to the shelter to clean the privy (which they helped build), empty the fire pit, and make any necessary repairs.
They also operate a shuttle business for hikers on the Long Trail. For a minimal fee, they will drive up to Journey’s End – or wherever hikers are – and shuttle them back to the start of the trail. In true Trail Magic fashion, all the money that Jeff and Nancy collect shuttling thru-hikers is compiled and later used to fund their annual, very magical weekend.
So, the more hikers that utilize Jeff and Nancy’s shuttle services, the better the Trail Magic will be. It’s a symbiotic relationship, a reciprocating loop of generosity that feeds this beast (and the ones hiking the trail), allowing them to help hikers out in the best way they know how – showering them with cool refreshments, local food, and, of course, with new Darn Tough socks.
The Only Way Out Is Thru
Back at the Trail Magic, Nancy made sure that every thru-hiker had something hot to eat. She was whipping up homemade breakfast sandwiches with juicy maple sausages and farm-fresh eggs (for which we were all lucky enough to try one).
Meanwhile, Jeff orchestrated a lineup of instant coffee funnels with filters ready to pour for tired wanderers in need of a pick-me-up. The two worked in tandem to prepare everything fresh for thru-hikers who stumbled upon us, never without a smile and never breaking conversation.
Our mission was to help Jeff and Nancy put on the best magic show possible. While they cooked and poured drinks, our team chatted with thru-hikers and exchanged socks.
Of the 35 thru-hikers we encountered in one day, over three-quarters of them were already wearing Darn Tough socks. Some hikers were wearing them but had no idea that they were even made in Vermont.
Working together, we shared what makes our socks the best hiking socks on the planet – expressing how they’re comfortable, durable, and offer a better fit than any sock they’ll ever wear.
But we didn’t have to tell thru-hikers that – it was evident they already knew. Most of them, at least. And for the few that weren’t familiar, we took time to speak to them personally about our product and what it’s best used for.
We discussed the benefits of Merino Wool, heavy cushion vs. light cushion, and described our unconditional lifetime guarantee. Needless to say, we made a lot of new friends and watched hikers happily ditch their old socks for a brand-new pair of still made in Vermont Darn Tough’s.
Magic, the Gathering (of Local VT Brands)
Darn Tough is born and bred in Vermont’s Green Mountains. Like the Long Trail – and parts of the AT – our socks leave an impression on many people that pass through New England’s mountainous corridor.
Part of Jeff and Nancy’s journey to provide Trail Magic here is to pay homage to the Green Mountain State and its local businesses. Like Darn Tough, Jeff and Nancy are also proud to partner with other popular Vermont-based brands and products, including Dakin Farm, Untapped, and the Long Trail Brewing Company.
This year, Dakin Farm was kind enough to donate several pounds of fresh bacon and maple sausages (which are as succulent as they sound). They’ve also leveraged their connections at the Long Trail Brewing Co. to secure cases of cold lager and crisp IPA for hikers on the trail.
Another local Vermont brand – Untapped – showed their support for the Trail Magic by hooking Jeff and Nancy up with some of their sweetest maple products, including Untapped energy gels, waffles, and, of course, several gallons of Pure Vermont Maple Syrup.
This, again, is how Trail Magic transcends just giving away generic products mindlessly (which is still a treat) but rather focuses on providing thru-hikers with locally sourced products that are made here in Vermont. It provides a certain sense of community, culture, and confidence knowing that thru-hikers are not only getting what they need, but getting it straight from the source, from the very grounds on which they stand.
Thru-Hikers We Met
Bilbo – NOBO
Bilbo met us in the early afternoon for a breakfast sandwich and a cold drink. Teary-eyed as he talked, Bilbo lamented on the loss of his beloved wife one year prior. It was her dream, he explained, to hike the AT, but sadly she never got the chance. Bilbo, who now lives in Florida, spoke of his wife’s sincerity and loving personality. He told us that after his wife’s passing, Bilbo decided to hike the AT in her honor – and at 1,500 miles in, he’s looking happier than ever.
Seamonkey – NOBO
Seamonkey represents the epitome of a Northbound thru-hiker. His ALTRA’s (trail running shoes) were thrashed and battered, to the point where his soles were literally falling off. His Darn Tough socks were riddled with holes (which isn’t a problem since they’re guaranteed for life), and one of his trekking poles was broken. Yet, somehow, Seamonkey strolled into camp rocking a big smile, seemingly unaffected by his gear’s heavy abuse – because that’s what Nobos do.
Mad Hatter – NOBO
One look at the Mad Hatter and you’ll see what it looks like to be a man of character. Hiking Northbound, the Mad Hatter arrived at our camp sporting a leather hat that was as genuine and befitting as his trail name. His enrapturing smile speaks volumes about what it means to live life vicariously through the woods, and with his signature cap. He left us with an inspiring quote to live by: “Hats for all – bare heads for none.”
Gnarly & Sarah – SOBO
Gnarly got her trail name hiking Southbound on the AT, mostly because her style reflected the rhythm of Maine’s rugged landscape. Her twin sister, Sarah, joined her for a walk in the woods and through parts of New Hampshire, and now Vermont. The girls were all smiles at the sight of Trail Magic (the rumors were true!) and couldn’t be happier with their new, micro crew hiker socks. Now that’s twinning.
The Grim Family – Section Hike
It’s not often you see a family of four doing a 70-mile section hike of Vermont’s eastern Appalachian Trail. Unless, of course, both parents are former Sobo thru-hikers. That, coupled with their kid’s uncontainable excitement, made our interaction with the Grim family one of the livelier ones. Hailing from the great state of Maine, we made sure to hook the Grim Family up with new socks for Mom and Dad and snazzy snapback caps for the kids. Happy hiking, Grims!
AT Thru-Hikers Are Darn Tough
For the past five years, Darn Tough has been an integral component to the triumph of Jeff and Nancy’s Trail Magic. In the past, we’ve donated socks and shipped them up to Jeff and Nancy to distribute. But this year, we personally wanted to help and get involved by exchanging socks with thru-hikers in person.
It was an incredible experience to watch their faces illuminate with joy at the sight (and feel) of free Darn Tough socks – is there truly anything better in life?
One of the most popular hiking socks that we distributed was the ATC Micro Crew. This sock helps support the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s outdoor educational programs and maintenance of America’s first national scenic trail by donating 5% of all sales directly to the ATC.
How Can You Help?
Part of what makes hiking in Vermont so satisfying is the tireless work and effort put forth by the Green Mountain Club (GMC) volunteers. If you’ve ever walked along the trail or through the woods in Vermont and thought to yourself, “wow these boulders are like steps” or “this section is incredibly well-kept,” then you’ve experienced the wonders of what our volunteers do.
Jeff and Nancy are both avid volunteers at the GMC and perform their due diligence every year (outside of Trail Magic) to lend a hand when hands are needed.
If you’re looking to get involved, the GMC is always seeking volunteers. Thanks to the relentless pursuit of volunteers across the state, the GMC has been able to support hikers and maintain tough sections of the trail for more than a century. If you want to get involved, contact the Green Mountain Club by calling 802-244-7037 or visit their website to fill out a volunteer application or donate today.
Trail Magic — It's in the Mountains (and on Your Feet)
And just like that… POOF… the show was over. An entire day of Trail Magic (roughly 8 hours, 35 thru-hikers, and too many socks to count) all gone in the blink of an eye.
We all couldn’t believe how fast the day went. The people we met, the stories we shared, and the socks we gave away capped off an amazing day on the AT with two of the trail’s finest magicians.
Jeff and Nancy, thank you for incorporating us into your act. And to all the thru-hikers we met, thank you for your time. It’s people like you who truly make Trail Magic possible, and Darn Tough supports you. Happy trails!